Learning Theories

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Learning Theories 1


Learning Theories and the Curriculum

Learning Theories 2

Lev Vygotsky, born in the U.S.S.R. in 1896, is responsible for the social development theory of learning. He proposed that social interaction profoundly influences cognitive development. Vygotsky’s key point is his belief that biological and cultural development do not occur in isolation.

Vygotsky approached development differently from Piaget. Piaget believed that cognitive development consists of four main periods of cognitive growth: sensory motor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations. Piaget’s theory suggests that development has an endpoint in goal. Vygotsky, in contrast, believed that development is a process that should be analyzed, instead of a product to be obtained. Marcy P. Driscoll stated (as cited in Riddle, 1999) that “Vygotsky believes the development process that begins at birth and continues until death is too complex to be defined by stages”.

The major theme of Vygotsky’s theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. Vygoysky states: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological) (Funderstanding, 2001). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.

A second aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span that he calls the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD). Vygotsky believed that this life long process of development was dependent on social interaction and that social learning actually leads to cognitive development (Kearsley, 1998). Vygotsky describes it as “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through

Learning Theories 3

problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Funderstanding, 2001). In other words, a student can perform a task under adult guidance or with peer collaboration that could not be achieved alone. The Zone of Proximal Development bridges the gap between what is known and what can be known. Vygotsky claimed that learning occurred in this zone.

Therefore, Vygotsky focused on the connections between people and the cultural context in which they act and interact in shared experiences. According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from a culture, such as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments. Initially, Children develop these tools to serve solely as social functions, ways to communicate needs. Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher thinking skills (Riddle, 1999). When Piaget observed young children participating in egocentric speech in their preoperational stage, he believed it was a phase that disappeared once the child reached the stage of concrete operations. Driscoll states (as cited in Riddle, 1999) “in contrast, Vygotsky viewed this egocentric speech as a transition from social speech to internalized thought”. Thus, Vygotsky believed that thought and language could not exist without each other. Vygotsky’s theory was an attempt to explain consciousness as the end product of socialization. For example, in the learning of language, our first vocal noises with friends or adults are for the purpose of communication, but once mastered they become internalized and allow “inner speech”.

Traditionally, schools have not promoted environments in which the students play an active role in their education and in the education of their friends. Vygotsky’s theory, however, requires the...
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